May 21

Repetition (That’s Right—Repetition)

Is repetition in your writing good or bad? Well, that depends. Repetition can be used quite effectively, but also very ineffectively. Take this example:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a career change. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of the change. But for his dad, it was a radical change, from industry to education. To move from an engineering office to the college classroom was a change of culture he never really settled into.”

Four instances of “change” in one paragraph! Does it sound contrived? I assure you it is not. It is modeled after a real paragraph from a real author (although it has been modified to protect the guilty). Such redundancy is a clear signal that the paragraph is wordy. By merging sentences and using a synonym or two, it is more succinct and fluid:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a radical career change, from industry to education. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of his father’s move from an engineering office to the college classroom—a cultural shift he never really settled into.”

Removing the repetition really improves this paragraph—and yet, in poetic material or creative prose, repeated use of certain words can be crucial to creating dramatic emphasis, such as in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

What’s the difference? How can you tell if repeating a word is a good or bad thing? Mostly, the success or failure of repetition hinges upon intent. With Tennyson, it’s obvious that the repeated words and phrases are part of the rhythm of the piece—you can actually feel the hoofbeats of the horses, can’t you? But in the paragraph about Joe’s father, the author apparently repeats “change” accidentally.

The only way you are going to make your material sparkle is if you really think through your writing. Your first draft may be written as fast as you can type it in, but when you revise, you need to keep a sharp lookout for things you didn’t notice the first time, like needless repetition. Don’t be a literary sleepwalker!

April 18

“Joe fell off a cliff . . .”

“Joe fell off a cliff. He’s in the hospital.”

Do those two sentences follow logically? Sure they do, even though you have skipped an essential point in the progression of the narrative — the fact that Joe was injured. It does not necessarily follow that Joe was injured by the fall, but we assume he was since he’s in the hospital. But if one of Joe’s wounds (from his fall off the cliff) got infected, and the doctor put him on antibiotics, what do you think of these two sentences?

“Joe fell off a cliff. The doctor put him on antibiotics.”

Strange, right? A non sequitur (literally, “It does not follow”), right? So we can sometimes skip one step in a logical progression of ideas, but two or three or four, and we’re going to get into trouble.

Of course, we would never skip so many steps in the progression of thought, would we? But I see writers do it all the time. And I do it all the time, though I don’t see it as clearly in my own writing as in the work of others. That’s why it is so important to let others look at your draft of an article or chapter or book. And when they say, “I’m not sure what you’re driving at,” ask them if they can identify the exact spot in the text where you lost them. Then in the revision, rethink those passages, looking for missing logical steps. Your writing will be much clearer and more readable.

Too often when you give people your manuscript to read, they proofread it! Tell them you aren’t interested in spelling and punctuation at this point, but logical progression of thought.  And if they don’t know what you mean, tell them about poor old Joe.

March 16

In Defense of Editors

One of my good friends commented on my previous post that I should have left those clichés in, despite what my editor said. “Your clichés are uniquely you,” she said.  That was meant as a compliment, but . . . well . . .

My friend was not the only one to suggest that clichés are my “style” and should be kept in. But the editor is your first audience, and if you trust your editor, you have to accept that the editor sees blemishes in your writing that you are blind to.  And in the interest of full disclosure (it really hurts to admit this), I have to say that the number of clichés in my manuscript was really over the top! (The ironic use of the cliché “over the top”  in that last sentence was NOT deliberate; I only just now noticed it!)

Another point made was that you can’t make every sentence into a brilliant and original turn of a phrase, or it would be hard to read. I agree. It would be hard to write as well! Brilliant originality in every sentence? I don’t want to put any author under that kind of pressure! However, if a phrase is so “original” it is hard to read, then it’s probably badly written! If it’s a really good original thought, then it should be quite easy to read.

To give one example of an author who uses one original phrase after another, let me suggest A.W. Tozer.  His writing is not hard to read, in the sense of being hard to figure out what he’s saying. His writing tends to be slow reading, because what he says is so profound it causes the reader to pause and think about it. Hard to skim? Yes. Hard to read? Never! This is why Tozer is so often quoted.

So don’t feel sorry for me because I was asked to change a few clichés. It gave me a chance to get a little creative. And I wouldn’t have seen them because I was blind to the mistakes. (Besides, she let me keep a few of my favorites!)

It’s always good to have another pair of eyes to look at your manuscript. My editor even found a few sentences in my manuscript (a manuscript I had gone over and over) that didn’t make sense to her.  I looked at those sentences and said “Wow, how did I miss that?” And I wrote something much better.

So give your editor a fair chance. He or she is committed to making you look good!

March 13

Clichés and original thought

Okay, I confess. I love clichés! Although my editor struck most of them from my latest book, she allowed me to keep a couple of my favorites — which made me happy as a clam!

And if I had been editing a manuscript of some other author who used those same clichés, I would have struck them, too. A cliché is a sign of a lack of original thought (ouch, it hurts to make that confession!). So the only way to replace a cliché is to come up with something original — some kind of statement that conveys what you are trying to say in a fresh way.

The problem is, we tend to be blind to our own mistakes — probably that’s why we keep making the same ones over and over again! So you’ll never find your clichés unless you deliberately look for them.

Read through your manuscript and take note of particular phrases that sound vaguely familiar. Then do a global search for them in the entire manuscript. Some phrases, such as “on the other hand” or “in a little while” are not exactly clichés, but are often overused. If such phrases turn up more than three or four times, remove most of them. If a phrase is a bona fide cliché, strike it out! (My editor is laughing at me over that advice, I’m sure.)

Once you find a cliché, how do you fix it? One simple way is to create a new one, like “. . . hungry as a horse supermodel on a diet.” Or merge them so they play off each other, like “When you’re over the hill, you start picking up speed.” But you can’t do that with every one of them. You may need to rethink what you are trying to say. Maybe it’s as frayed, faded and tired as the cliché you are using.  Maybe you need to improve the content of your material.  Maybe you need to express it in a fresh way, looking for a whole new aspect of the issue.

Let me show you a couple of clichés my editor found (crossed out) and the replaced wording (in red).

Sometimes an idea seems to just write itself. Other times you have to plug away at it feel like your creativity is trying to run with a sprained ankle.

But sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse trying to capitalize on an idea with an inherent flaw, and instead of capitalizing, you should be euthanizing!

As you can see, the solution to a cliché may sometimes be to add more information. A cliché can often be a spot in your manuscript where you lose the reader, because the tired phrase contains assumed information — you’ve stopped talking to your reader and you’re talking to yourself. (You know, they put people away for things like that!)